Has the ivory-billed woodpecker left the building?

Watercolor painting of ivory-billed woodpeckers from Audubon's Birds of America, 1826.

Imagine waking up one morning to real film footage of a duckbill dinosaur wandering around the Great Plains. Your reaction might be similar to that of birders around the world when Science magazine reported in 2005 that the ivory-billed woodpecker, thought for 60 years to have been extinct in the United States, still existed.

A forest bird of legend

The woodpecker entered birder and ecologist lore when its numbers declined in the early part of the 20th century. Its habitat was bottomland forest in the southeastern United States and Cuba, and its niche included drilling into mature trees. When people came along, logging away the woodpeckers’ homes, the bird appeared to vanish. By the 1920s, we thought it had disappeared forever, although in 1943, there was a single confirmed sighting of a lone female, flying over the stumps of an old-growth forest. She became a central figure in a PhD thesis in 1944. Then for 60 years, silence.

False calls

Well, not complete silence. There were many reports of sightings, but most were traced to another woodpecker species, the pileated woodpecker. The ivory-billed woodpecker differs distinctly from its pileated cousin in beak color, in having white patches on its back when perched, and in its size and the solid-black crest of the female. It has a three-foot wing span, which is huge for a woodpecker, and can grow as large as 20 inches long. It is a big, beautiful, and surprising bird, with a bright red crest on the males that must be startling to see among the cypress of a bottomland forest.

A mesmerizing obsession

Birders, possibly the most obsessive of any taxon fan club, had long wandered into the swampy bottomlands of Arkansas and Louisiana, trying to find ivory-billed woodpeckers. There was a confirmed sighting in Cuba in the ‘80s, and over the decades, people have claimed sightings or reported having heard the ivory-billed’s call. Professionals and amateurs alike have waded among snakes and fought off bugs, playing tapes of the call and listening for a response. At one point, searchers found a nest that had an ivory-billed look to it and trained a remote-sensing camera on it, but saw nothing.

And then in 1999, a kayaker thought that he had seen a pair of the birds. His report received serious attention from the government, local papers, and academic groups interested in the woodpecker both for its inherent beauty and for its status as a symbol of the price of our destructive tendencies. Soon, the old forests of the southeast were crawling with ornithologists, all hoping to catch a glimpse, take a picture, and emerge with definitive proof that a bird long thought to be extinct had survived.

The beat of the forest, revived?

Some people heard the drumming sounds the woodpecker is known to make. A handful of people who really knew their woodpeckers reported sightings. But it was a four-second video of the shy, reclusive bird that clinched it. The video is short and blurry, taken from a kayak in late April of 2004 on a camcorder. But even its poor quality couldn’t hide the distinctive markings and features of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The confirmation set the world of ornithology astir, but it also reverberates among ecologists and environmentalists. The fact that at least one male ivory-billed woodpecker exists indicates that at least one breeding pair must have survived into the 1990s because the birds live 15 to 20 years at most. And it also might have meant a second chance for us and the woodpecker. Unfortunately, according to a recent report from Cornell researchers who have spent five years looking for more signs of the bird, “it’s unlikely that there are recoverable populations” of the bird where they’ve been searching.

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A gal for George, the world's loneliest tortoise?

Long-lived, lonely: The tragic fate of Lonesome George

George has seen a lot in his life. He was born sometime between 80 and 200 years ago, so what exactly he’s seen remains speculative. What we do know is that in 1971, some goat herders spotted George on the island of Pinta in the Galapagos, and George’s life changed significantly. Researchers rushed to the site to find the tortoise. The reason for the rush? They thought George was the very last of his subspecies, the lone denizen of Pinta, a survivor of the combined adverse effects of whalers and goats in the Galapagos.

George’s people+goats problem

Probably within George’s memory—if he could form such memories—whalers arrived at the Galapagos islands and decimated tortoise populations by eating the animals, whose abundant meat proved irresistible to the protein-starved mariners. With the people came the goats, and the goats proceeded to eat their way through everything on Pinta that the tortoises like to eat, too, destroying all of the tortoise’s nesting sites in the process. By the 1970s, biologists were pretty sure that there were no longer any Geochelone nigra abingdonii, George’s subspecies, living on the island. Then George popped up his wrinkled head just as the goatherders were walking by.

George elicits some bizarre human behavior, ignores tortoise females

The people took George to a tortoise sanctuary, where they attempted to introduce him to the joys of female companionship. Because George was alone, species-wise, they selected a couple of females from a closely related subspecies, Geochelone nigra becki, who hailed from Wolf Island, part of the Galapagos island chain. There, George lived with the females for 30 years with nary a leering glance at them, much less successful mating. One frustrated researcher went so far as to join George in his pen, where she covered herself in eau d’ female tortoise, excretions from the female that presumably carried male-attracting pheromones. During her time with George, the male tortoise appeared to have a sort of sexual awakening, showing a bit of interest and exhibiting signs of sexual activity. The researcher even confirmed that George was indeed male and that everything appeared to be functioning normally.

Then, her research period at the sanctuary ended, and George lost his trainer in the romantic arts. Bachelor and celibate, his claim to fame remained that he was the world’s loneliest animal. He even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the rarest creature on Earth. His sobriquet became Lonesome George, and thousands of people came to view him at his island sanctuary. Over time, he has had his trials: a caretaker who let him eat too much, periodic overindulgence in cactus—a tortoise delicacy—that led to constipation, and a fall that almost killed him. But still, no mating.

Will George find his Ms. Right?

Then, a group of researchers tackled the job of drawing blood from tortoises on the nearby island of Isabela, where a different subspecies of tortoise lives. They performed microsatellite DNA analysis on the blood, a type of analysis that produces a DNA fingerprint that can be used to characterize a species. To their surprise, they found a tortoise among their samples who appeared to be half-George. The male tortoise had a microsatellite DNA pattern that was a 50% match for George, meaning that somewhere on the island of Isabela, a possibly-female G. n. abindonii lurked and, apparently, mated.

Now the search is on for the individual who may blow George’s place in the record books but also be the last hope for their mutual species to persist on the planet. If the tortoise is female, researchers hope to introduce her to George, possibly awakening his long-dormant libido. Meanwhile, George’s former island home of Pinta could be a tortoise Eden for the pair: the goats are gone and much of the vegetation has returned to its original ecological state. If they can find George a mate, he may very well cease to be Lonesome George and become his species’ Adam, partner to the as-yet-unidentified Eve.

Sad update: Baby red panda has died

This update on the baby red panda from a news release via the National Zoo:

An animal keeper at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo discovered a recently born red panda cub lifeless yesterday during evening animal rounds. The 21-day-old cub was immediately transported to the veterinary hospital where a veterinary team confirmed his death. Born June 16, this male was the first cub for parents Shama and Tate and the first cub born at the Zoo in 15 years.

Zoo keepers had closely observed the cub since his birth. First-time mother Shama had moved the cub around the outdoor exhibit instead of keeping the cub in a nest box, as would be expected. As a result of Shama’s behavior, the exhibit was roped off to the public in order to provide her with peace and quiet. Animal care staff weighed the cub regularly, observed and reviewed the behavior of the cub and parents at least twice daily and volunteers monitored the behavior in-person and via camera several hours each day.

Due to the recent extreme heat, keepers were extra vigilant maintaining the animals’ cooling centers (chilled spaces within the exhibit). Nonetheless, there is a 50 percent mortality rate for red panda cubs born in captivity. Pathologists performed the necropsy last evening but the definite cause of death was not evident. Additional testing, including histopathology, is underway and should provide additional information.

The National Zoo has been breeding red pandas successfully for 48 years. Since 1962, 184 cubs have been born at both the Zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., with a mortality rate of about 40 percent, below the national average. Currently there is one cub at the Front Royal facility.

“This is an enigmatic and important species,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoological Park. “We’re deeply disappointed to lose this cub but there are inherent risks in the conservation of rare species. Our cumulative breeding and research success has positioned the Smithsonian’s National Zoo as one of the leaders in the field of red panda conservation. We’ll stay the course until this animal is no longer listed as vulnerable.”

Red pandas breed once a year and animal care staff anticipate that they will breed again next year.

Awww. Baby red panda

It was love at first sight for Shama and Tate, the red pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, and now, nearly 1½ years after they were introduced, the pair has a cub as evidence of their strong bond. On Wednesday, June 16, Shama gave birth to a single cub—the first for both of the Zoo’s red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) and the first red panda cub born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in 15 years.

Red pandas have a baby. It’s very cute.

The National Zoo is celebrating its first birth of a red panda in 15 years. The history of the red panda–at least, of its classification–is complicated. More on that in a mo. What’s significant here is its current situation. Thanks to habitat loss, the species has declined in the wild to fewer than 2500 individuals, and it is endangered. So a birth–especially between an apparently happy couple with a strong mutual attraction–is a success for the zoo and for red panda conservation, too.

The proud mother was born at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., and more than 100 surviving cubs have been born at both this research facility and the Washington, D.C., campuses since 1962.

Panda or raccoon?

Taxonomists–the folks who classify organisms by relatedness–have had a conundrum on their hands with the red panda. You’d think that the name says it all: it’s a panda, right?

Well, no. Nothing’s ever that easy in taxonomy. For some time, arguments that it was a relative of the raccoon held weight. But the animal has some strong panda-like traits, including an affinity for bamboo and similar habitats to the giant panda. But they differ in their far more diverse diet and greater habitat distribution.

The panda’s thumb

The giant panda has a faux thumb that’s really just a bone extension of the wrist bones. It’s not an opposable thumb like the one primates have, but the giant panda uses it in a thumb-like way. The red panda happens to share this odd trait. They also share many similarities in their DNA, which ended in the red panda briefly joining the bear family.

So, is it a panda or a raccoon?

The species also has some commonalities with the raccoon, including the ringed tail and more diverse diet compared to the giant panda, one that includes a taste for bird eggs. For these reasons, it also has been classified into the raccoon family. So, which family is it?

It’s neither. While the red panda has now been classified as a distant relative of the giant panda–the bamboo! the “thumb”!–it falls into its very own family, the Ailuridae, of which the red panda, or Ailurus fulgens, is the sole member. Unlike bears, this species arose in Asia and never made the trek to the “new world.”

Interesting note, the snow leopard–another severely endangered species–is their sole wild predator.

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